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Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle: Understanding Business and Politics Using Business Axioms

What business axiom or management principle have you discovered that helps you live better, work smarter, or understand organizations in a way that is unique, fun, or provides that rare but special “ah ha” moment?

An example of a well-known business axiom is the famous “Peter’s Principle” (1) which states: “People rise to their level of incompetence”. Explaining how incompetent people can rise to senior management and political positions without any management or leadership skills helps to understand why so many businesses and governments can fail. There are many corollaries to this intriguing concept that may explain poor government and corporate performance. Perhaps major decisions also rise to their level of incompetence. That is, the more critical a decision, the more likely it will be taken away from the right people and taken either in a steering committee (to avoid accountability) or at the C-level. Suite or government cabinet where terrible decisions are sometimes made out of ignorance. While this principle is intended to promote discussion of the follies of certain bureaucracies, we can all relate to those major business mistakes caused by leaders who thought they knew better. Do you remember the new Coke, Edsel and the infamous business failures of Enron, Arthur Anderson, Lehman Bros. and Bear Sterns? Government failures are even more common, as evidenced by the Arab Spring uprisings and most of Europe facing severe budget deficits and even a crashing European Union currency.

Speaking to a high-level bureaucrat who was going to announce the immediate closure of a major call center, I replied that determining its future call distribution would be critical because that location had nearly 400 employees at work. He replied that I was wrong and that no one was working there. Stunned by his lack of knowledge, I replied that I had just returned from a visit last week and we had over 400 active employees doing business there. A bureaucrat located at a distance and especially at headquarters can be very dangerous for sound decision-making!

My favorite business axiom is Parkinson’s Law, written by C. Northcote Parkinson (2) in 1954: “Work expands in the time available”. This is the only management principle that I remember with clarity from my four years of college administration because I experienced the relationship between work and time that was both elastic and unpredictable. This is an irreverent yet insightful take on how workload is not proportional to staffing in bureaucratic organizations. It reminds us that in our world, we need to understand human behavior, embrace humor, and recognize people’s tendency to make senseless decisions, especially when emotions take over basic common sense.

All students recognize the value of Parkinson’s Law. It is essential to determine how long a task will take or it will naturally stretch to two, three or more times the actual time needed. As students, we learned this fact quickly after working several days on an essay while as seniors we would start a project two hours before the deadline with surprisingly positive results. Although this work-time relationship is well known, fewer and fewer people apply it to their organization. Most business schools, companies and certainly almost all governments have forgotten the importance of the relationship to working time. One only has to look at the state of governments around the world to recognize that the trend of growing bureaucracies is fundamental because growth ignores any workload or reason. Greece is currently facing severe financial ruin because its expanding public bureaucracy has become unsustainable. Thus, a competent bureaucrat is not rewarded when he shuts up and strives to reduce staff, but is expected to continue functioning regardless of the increased workload. The incompetent bureaucrat can only achieve a poor record, but his constant complaints inevitably bring in additional staff. He keeps complaining and soon he’s managing a department twice the size of the competent office manager down the hall. The bureaucratic nature of the local motor vehicle department shows how the work stretches over the available time as these organisations, despite years of practice and IT conversions and upgrades, still demonstrate a complete lack of logic and efficiency. Their avoidance of any level of customer service is legendary.

Another more serious and insidious example of Parkinson’s law is the tendency of bureaucrats to create complexity. Take the process of codifying and regulating American laws. Whether it’s the new health care law currently under review for constitutionality, the new Dodd-Frank banking law and its thousands of pages of regulations, or the proposed changes to the extremely complex, the means to create law in America have become the epitome of bureaucracy and unintended consequences. This explains why there are so many lawyers and accountants and how American society creates enough work to keep them all employed administering laws far too complex for the public to understand.

The complexity that generates government is probably due to the number of legislators who have to find something to do with their time. Instead of looking for ways to make work easier, it seems they want to pass more laws and make life even more complicated.

Parkinson’s Law explains why the two most basic functions of government, collecting taxes and delivering public health care, continue to grow even more complex and costly. Just try explaining to a European how Americans calculate their taxes or how to choose an employee health care plan. After two hours with my Belgian daughter-in-law trying to select a health plan and explain income taxes, it was clear that our systems are indeed irrational.

Downsizing a government agency, simplifying our tax code, or making health care more manageable will supposedly cause a calamity of epic proportions. The austerity plans in Europe and currently underway in local and state governments have not yet been adopted by our federal government which always seems to find a reason to ignore the recommendations of its committee and to postpone decisions by rejecting the most difficult and important problems. This ability to ignore responsibility is likely why there is friction between corporate America and the government. In most societies, the sovereign bureaucracy joins and supports the corporations. In America, there is a distrust of government that dates back to the Revolutionary War and our protection of individual liberties. Government work also has different incentives. Civil servants are not expected to be resource efficient, but are expected to spend all the money in their budgets or face a drastic cut in funding and resources next year. Government growth requires more revenue to operate, so higher taxes are needed. Business enterprises seek profit, so work diligently to avoid taxes and focus on efficiency and cost reduction, so the goals of the two institutions have traditionally been at opposite poles. The incredible growth of global, federal, state, and local governments and their overspending demonstrates Parkinson’s thesis that bureaucracies and agencies will proliferate even though they no longer have a reason to exist.

We find many examples of Peter’s Principle and/or Parkinson’s Law in our business and government experience. Many are hoping for an easy solution to the growth of inefficient government and the complexity of society. Perhaps if Congress passed a law stipulating that all laws and regulations should be limited to one page, we could begin to unravel the complexity of our healthcare system and our tax code. Of course, lobbyists, departments, and stakeholders who profit from such inefficiencies would prohibit any movement toward simplicity.

The hope that technology would solve bureaucratic problems simply makes it easier to “cut and paste” more information into the process so that all the laws and their compliance take more pages to discuss a single point. The environmental impact report, for example, for a new football stadium in Los Angeles was over 10,000 pages and cost $27 million to produce. Interestingly, the original Los Angeles Coliseum was built in 1923 for just $950,000. Here is one more example of a regulatory process without constraint or reasonable limits. The typical Los Angeles resident probably won’t be able to afford to attend the game when football returns to Los Angeles in 2020, 2030 or…

The cost of future football in Los Angeles, however, pales in comparison to the waste and cost of administering America’s complex tax code or managing our fragmented and complex healthcare system. Unfortunately, such complexity in health care shifts the burden to those most at risk without the knowledge to navigate and find optimal care: the uninsured, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and children. The tragedy of a systematic, fragmented and deeply uncoordinated health system is that the quality of care is severely degraded and uneven. We are informed by letter that our doctor will no longer accept our PPO health insurance, will not be able to use the local hospital, that the laboratory is not an approved provider and that our premiums have increased again.

The impact of the complex tax code may not be as severe on a citizen’s health, but it certainly creates unnecessary tax stress for a people and a country already unable to live within their means. Every year we seem to have more uncertainty, more interaction with our tax accountants, state tax authorities and the IRS as they add more complex rules to the process. Managing our financial lives has become more difficult, and the end result is more stress and doubt. So stay healthy so you have the time and energy to calculate and pay your taxes! Remember Parkinson’s Law and don’t start preparing your taxes too soon, or you’ll waste weeks of time exercising and staying healthy.

The references:

1. Peter, Laurence J.; Hill, Raymond (1969). The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. New York: William Morrow and company.

2.Parkinson, C. Northcote; (1954). Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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